This is the first of my postings on the 8 day raft trip I completed last week with Wilderness Birding Adventures (WBA) in the Arctic NWR located in the northeast corner of Alaska. The trip is run each year between June 10th and 20th with the primary goal of seeing gray-headed chickadees--arguably the most difficult breeding bird to find in North America because of the challenge of locating it in the wilds of Alaska. Because of the vast area in which it lives, finding it while it is nesting makes it somewhat easier to see. However, since it begins nesting in late May, being able to float the rivers in the Arctic NWR in mid June can be problematic due to ice and snow. As the photo above shows, we woke up to snow on our first morning which was a harbinger of the quickly changing and erratic weather we experienced during the trip--but I am getting ahead of myself.
Eight "hearty adventurers" joined Bob Dittrick and Aaron Lang from WBA on Sat. evening June 11th in Fairbanks for a pre-trip briefing. The adventurers included 3 of my closest friends--Craig, Marty and Richard--plus 4 others--Bill, Jim, John and Sue--all birders that I had run into at least once during my big year in 2010. Info was shared, and gear was checked to be ready for our early Sunday departure.
We all arrived at the airport for the 1st of 2 plane flights to be told by Bob that floating the river might not be possible due to very low water levels. Having been on a wait list for 3 years already, and after some anxious discussion, all agreed to go ahead in hopes of being able to get down the river. We flew out to Arctic Village first, and then were shuttled on a smaller plane to a backcountry "landing strip" on the Marsh fork of the Canning river where we set up camp. Soon after arriving we found a mother grizzly with 2 cubs feeding at some distance on a mountainside on the other side of the river. We kept checking them out until we went to bed.
The next morning with snow still falling we hauled the 2 rafts, and all our equipment over a 1/4 mile of ice/snow to the main channel of the river. As we loaded up the rafts the snow finally stopped, but we still had a fairly strong wind blowing up river in our faces. We proceeded to float when possible, and walk/pull the rafts thru the shallows where necessary. While jumping in and out of the rafts, 3 of our group slipped and fell into the river, but no one was injured or exceedingly soaked. After 4 miles we reached our evening's campsite, putting up our tents in a light rain. Fortunately the rest of the evening was clear allowing us to eat comfortably, to sing happy birthday to Bob who turned 65, and then gladly to crawl into our sleeping bags.
The next morning dawned cool but mostly clear. After breakfast we began hiking up a side valley to check various trees in which WBA had found gray-headed chickadees nesting in prior years. The first 2 trees with nesting cavities proved to be empty this year, but the 3rd was the charmed as documented in the series of photos just below (click on any photo to enlarge).
We also saw other birds including northern shrikes, gray jays, and 2 golden eagles high in the sky being harassed by 2 ravens. With the "target bird" well seen and thoroughly enjoyed, everyone was elated and felt hugely relieved because the pressure was now off to find the chickadee. Stay tuned!